notes on a developmental ethic

We are morally obliged to treat our fellow human beings and their communities as subjects in development. In this post, I take a stab at defining “development” and a developmental ethic.

Any theory of development expects constant change, as opposed to a theory that assumes stability, ignores the dimension of time, or overlooks the potential for bad things to improve. Development is not random change, but it also is not fully pre-determined and predictable. When something develops, we can say that changes occur because the object is moving toward some kind of objective or end, whereas ordinary physical objects change only as a consequence of what is done to them.

In the case of a biological organism, we are able to talk about “development” and change toward objectives or ends because the physical structure of the object includes guidelines for its own growth and transformation (mostly encoded in its genome). In contrast, we would not say that a mountain “develops,” even though it changes, because there is no design encoded in it that makes it change in a particular direction.

Human beings’ development is more complex, because we are able to reflect on our own trajectories and strive to change them. Not every influence is random or encoded in our genes. On the other hand, we are never fully free, because our developmental course up until the present influences our efforts to change. Thus development can involve intentions and self-consciousness, but it is not simply a matter of choice.

Nor do human beings pass through automatic “stages.”* Personal decisions and external events and opportunities disrupt the standard progression and can produce wide variation. Nevertheless, some phases or periods of development are encoded genetically, or are deeply embedded in our cultural traditions, or come logically before or after other phases. For example, there are important reasons that individuals typically babble before they talk, learn to read before they become sexually active, attend school before they vote, fill the roles of children before they are parents, and hold jobs before they retire. Some of these sequences are biologically necessary; others are wise conventions; and some might be mistakes. To think developmentally is to pay attention to the typical (and atypical) sequences and the timing of opportunities and experiences. The usual course of human development is open to critique but it cannot simply be ignored.

The same is true for communities, institutions, and other groups of human beings. Like individuals, they have developmental trajectories that are shaped by their initial designs, constrained by logic, affected by random events, and yet susceptible to deliberate alteration by the group itself. Sun Belt boom towns are at a different stage of development from Rust Belt inner cities. The government of the United States has developed rapidly since the ratification of the Constitution and cannot now reverse course. To think developmentally about a community is to take its past seriously and not to imagine that it can simply start over from scratch, but also to recognize the potential for deliberate change.

An ethic of development, then, is a particular way of making judgments and intervening in the world. It does not presume that every person, community, or institution has equal merit and virtue: some are better than others. But if we think developmentally, we are alert to the ways that the past has shaped each one’s present, the limits of choice, and the potential for any person or community to change for better or worse.

For example, I know college professors who are offended that their students are relatively superficial and undisciplined thinkers. That perspective fails to view students as individuals in development; their thinking will change rapidly. On the other hand, if you are a college teacher who simply tolerates and expects your students to think immaturely, you are not contributing to their development. If you try to make them think better, you ignore the inevitable responsibility of human beings for their own development. But if you leave them to do and think whatever they want, you forget that healthy development requires guidance and support. If you treat a 12-year-old just like your college students, you are unreasonable. But if you try to shepherd a fellow adult intellectually, as you would your own students, you misunderstand your limited rights and responsibilities for other people’s development. In short, thinking developmentally is not easy—it raises a host of empirical, strategic, and ethical questions—but it is indispensable.

*Important stage theories have been presented by Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and others. These theories offer important insights, but I am persuaded by a general critique. The idea of stages makes the developmental process seem internally regulated and automatic except under exceptional circumstances. That is plausible for language-acquisition but not for civic or moral identity after early childhood. Development is a complex and variable interaction between the organism, its own norms, prevailing external norms, and other aspects of the environment.